Gray rain falls outside the half-window. Everyone is sick here. It was silly to come to work when I have leave in the bank, but I hoard it. For my son, perhaps, or just because. I want to be stronger than need. People have made it further on less. The office doors close and lock. Green plants drink the moisture from the air and spill out over the edges of their pots, oblivious to the lengthening night, the inevitable winter.
My head spins but my chair is soft. The floor is soft. I make a pillow when I cannot stay upright and lay myself on the closest thing to earth, five stories up. It, too, is soft enough. I stay hard because of these small, inanimate kindnesses. I refuse the offer of juice. I refuse the offer of a ride home. I have made it this far, and it is afternoon, and I will work my eight hours. The students who stop take the best of me because I offer nothing less. I stay until five o’clock. The projects are complete and better than mediocre. No one has helped, and the pride in this tastes like the flat, white paint on the walls. Like the drop ceiling tiles. Like nothing at all.
The metro grinds up slowly, dragged down lower on the tracks by its swollen belly. I push my way into its choked middle, get stuck in the craw. Not a spare seat, not a square of territory. The pole is claimed and what remains is clammy from before. Not even a cool square of metal on which to rest my palm. A lanky blonde in a red trench coat faces me, my forehead inches from her lips. I pull out a book. The American within slides headlong into a torment she calls love. She is in Côte d’Azur. She speaks erratic French.
Vouloir is to want.
Attendre is to wait.
Manquer is to miss.
Everyone is talking there. Eating and kissing, sipping menthe and yellow citron pressé. A child bends to pet a white bird. The silence of compression dissolves into laughter and a mother calling, Francois, viens! I ignore the dizziness and lean an inch of my hip against the pole. No one speaks. I can smell the breath of the tall man to my left. He has had a drink today.
I do not ask for a seat. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. I am stronger than all the bacteria in this place. The pole is a petri dish. The train car is a tenement. We all share precious bits – cilia, lung, adenoid – but do not dare exchange a gaze. We copulate then flee. No one leaves a number. No one leaves a name.
Who among us is on the brink? Will I be the first to give way? What would happen if I just let go of the pole, if I just surrendered my weight to the rocking field of rain-flecked overcoats and creased brows? We are all so tired.
At the third stop, a seat appears behind me, and I stumble over feet and bags, sinking in. I have made it again, by my own volition, through turbulence to the next holding pattern. A mile walk in the evening haze awaits. I must gather strength. In Vence, the bells in the cathedral cleave the morning. Biciclettes whir along the streets, the women drink Veuve Clicquot. I glance up. Across the car, the blonde in the red coat has found a seat. She is staring right into my eyes. Hers are small and too close together. She oozes poison. I wonder at her for too long but she does not drop her glare. Where is her book? Her gadget, her paper, her daydream about the mouth of a man on her bare knees? I return to France where the American has seduced a young poet but she herself is the one who cries.
I glance again, and the blonde drips arsenic from her chin. Still, she glares at me. I fear she has knives in her sleeves. Her mouth is small and tight, a milkweed pod compressed by too much rain. It missed its chance to unfurl. Inside, everything decays.
The train wheezes to its final destination. Crackling commands sting our ears. Pings andlights command us all to our feet, force us to flee. No one is allowed to rest here. En masse, we trudge up and up, in rows and clumps, out. My head spins but my legs abide. Gravity is no match for me.
Near the exit, on mud-slick tiles, I hear her voice.
“What’s your problem?” She strides next to me. Vinegar churns through her throat and ears.
She is taller now, the red coat slapping her shins. “Here I have an injury and need a seat, and you just take it from me.” That shriveled mouth tries to snarl, but nothing elastic is left. I wonder if she was beautiful once. She is a decade younger than me. I glance down to see a single black sock wrapped around one slender ankle. An injury? Down below the wool and satchels, stone jaws and bodies rocking, rocking, I was supposed to discern her pain?
“I had no idea. I would have been happy to give up my seat if I had known.”
She continues to limp along next to me through a stained corridor of glass, the choked animal of the interstate pulling itself inexorably forward below our feet, one jerking inch at a time. Now, the eyes do not venture towards mine. “I’ve got nothing else to say to you.”
“I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. I’m sure anyone would have been happy to get up if you had asked.”
She stares ahead. Limp, step. Limp, step. Her shoulders curl in. She is a stalk, pole beans dried to husk. “I am not speaking to you.”
“I hope you will ask next time,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”
I want to gather her in my arms and tease the stiff cord from her neck. Such things are not done. I keep my distance but also keep pace. I do not let her flee. Too soon, we are out in the reluctant light. She turns away as do I, and she lurches over concrete and up the iron-tongued stairs.
Everything that matters is left unsaid. We are in this together, but she may never know. Can she hear me still next to her? I am whispering past her shoulder. I try to alight. She slaps me away. Over the groaning distance, I speak and speak. In silence, I force her to hear.
Yes, the day is a dark and lonely thing, if you paint it so. In our anonymous intimacy are the selfish, the wounded, those who serve only their own hungers. But also, you are in the company of those who are made to give. You may not know it, but you brush up against the tender and the naked; every day, they reach to meet you.
Do not be fooled into believing you are owed this generous thing. The earth is capricious in her offerings. Care may come. It may not. You may find yourself on your knees before a cenotaph, digging for the human heart that was never there at all. But this is the chance you have to take.
Bow your head. Let the plea awaken your tongue and the soft wet call pass your lips. You have to be as tender as that damp milkweed waiting inside its bristled fist. Dare to peel open, dare to loose the embryo of your longing to the fecund, tainted air.